What To Make Of This?

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Every once in a while I visit Overheard In Law School. So far, to my great relief, I haven’t read anything familiar there, meaning as far as I can tell, none of the embarrasing comments were mine. But there’s always next semester I fear! Anyway, the posts are often funny, but sometimes I wonder if I would have thought that if I had heard them in context. And others are just sort of cringe inducing, highlighting the same heteronormative, jocular sexism that I remember hating in law school. Here are some examples of what I mean:

*Law School Grad (waiting for bar results): oh good, i was hoping for bar results before i left, but luckily i got an ad for butt plugs so i’ll still be able to be f***ed in the ass!

*Torts Professor: Party A agrees to have ‘intimate relations’ with party B for $20. Party B knowingly gives party A a counterfeit $20 bill. Is there harm? I mean, Party A is stiffed.

*Re: Bonkowski v. Arlan’s Department Store
Torts Prof: Defendants may, in this case, possibly be held liable for a tort if “one holds her down while the other one fingers her.”

*Now the defendants have heard that their medication is causing praipism. That’s like in the Viagra and cialis commercials when they say,”If you’ve had an erection for more than four hours…”This is a serious condition. Any man knows how hard it would be to try to pee standing on your head.

*Criminal Law prof: “You can still consent to have a good wrestle with your buddy on the floor … assuming guys still do that.”

*Torts professor: “Sex for money is prostitution… so the only harm is if you got stiffed.”

*Crim Professor: Vagina, Vagina, Vagina, Vagina, Vagina, Vagina! Are you over it yet?
(pause)
Crim Professor: Oh shit, this class is recorded for iLecture.

*Crim Law Prof: Marijuana is a gateway drug!? Listen, breast milk is the real gateway drug, okay?

*Contracts Prof: “Contracts aren’t masturbation; two people are required for a valid contract.”

*Eccentric Torts professor to frightened 1L class, while on a tangent about rape: Eccentric Torts professor: “Because it’s so utterly dull to go through the game of romance, am I right guys? All men know that candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.”

*Prof: You can never unilaterally f#ck your spouse….oh wait, somehow I have three children running around so maybe it is possible.

Do the students and law profs who see their words above high five each other for being so clever? I don’t know what the point of that blog is, or how accurate or honest the posts are. For all the accusations of censoriousness thrown at feminists in legal academia, “Overheard” sure makes it seem like people feel free to say whatever they like, effect on the audience be damned.

–Ann Bartow

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0 Responses to What To Make Of This?

  1. marghlar says:

    Some of these are just appalling — especially the “liquor is quicker” business.

    But I think you are taking some of the others out of their natural context. For instance, the “finger her” comment sounds very much like a prof meant to say “positively ID her,” used a colloquialism, and ended up saying something embarrassing.

    Likewise, the “vagina, vagina” comment sounds like a female prof who is trying to get her class to stop tittering idiotically when she uses the medical term for a female organ — at least to me.

    Finally, I don’t at all see how “Contracts aren’t masturbation” is either heteronormative or sexist. Gay sex also requires two, and there is nothing gendered about this reference. The comment is sexual, to be sure, but it seems wrong to say that any joke with sexual content made in a classroom is necessarily sexist.

    Likewise, what is sexist about the Viagra comment? He’s making a joke about the male anatomy, which frankly puts men in a silly light. Is that sexist, in and of itself?

    I just worry that your list kind of conflates “heteronormative and sexist” with “sexual or referring in any way to reproductive organs.” I think there is a distinction between those two categories that is worth protecting.

    Those caveats aside, the rest of the list is pretty appalling, however.

  2. Ann Bartow says:

    I agree with you to a point. The “finger her” could have been accidental, or it could have been an accidental-on-purpose, yuk yuk, can’t you broads lighten up type thing. No way to tell from the blog.

    And maybe you are correct about the “vagina, vagina” remark, though why that prof would be worried about being recorded is kind of odd if the person was simply trying to reduce the power of the word.

    Most of these remarks set a really jocular tone. Mentioning masturbation in contracts class sexualizes the conversation for a reason, but what is the reason, exactly? Why choose “priapsim” for the hypothetical out of all possible medical conditions? I think it’s to set a tone that is unfriendly to women, at least part of the time. Obviously we’ll never know for sure.

  3. marghlar says:

    You’re right that context matters. I’ve known younger profs who made sexual jokes during lectures as part of a generally jocular tone, and I didn’t perceive a hostile tone or atmosphere. Of course, maybe other students did (I’m not claiming to know how everyone is affected by such remarks). But my overall sense is that some profs (including some female profs!) manage to incorporate non-sexist but sexual humor into their lectures without causing any noticeable offense.

    By the same token, I’ve known some professors who were inappropriate in a way that did make people uncomfortable. And many of the remarks above would be equally consistent with either scenario.

    But it’s been my (relatively fortunate) experience to have more of the former than the latter, so that probably colors my reading of these. I’m sure people with a darker set of past experiences relating to instruction would naturally read them differently. I just wanted to point out that for some of these comments, the sexism comes from an imagined scenario, and not from the comments in isolation. Others, of course, are hideous on their face.

  4. markwbennett says:

    Ann,

    I may be revealing my troglodyte credentials here, and willingly baring my throat to sharp rhetorical knives, but I don’t understand the issue with:

    “Marijuana is a gateway drug!? Listen, breast milk is the real gateway drug, okay?”

    This is a common pro-legalization response to the argument that marijuana is a gateway drug because people usually use it before graduating to harder stuff. (I won’t risk insulting your intelligence by elaborating on the rest of the syllogism.)

    How is that heteronormative (my new word for the day, thanks) or sexist?

  5. Ann Bartow says:

    Mark, if you are unfamiliar with the word “heteronormative” this is probably not the blog for you.

    Condescending references to breast milk or mother’s milk are often sexist. Depends on the context, as discussed above.

  6. Ralph M. Stein says:

    I must teach in a unique school because my colleagues don’t talk like that to each other, certainly not to me, and not to students. If they did, I’d know about it.

    Granted, when I started teaching over thirty years ago there were faculty who acted and spoke inappropriately (including late night drinking bouts with students), reflecting to a certain degree the breakdown in civility and professionalism that existed on many campuses. But today? Not at my school.

  7. markwbennett says:

    Ann, I know that you weren’t being deliberately condescending, but I feel sad thinking that I am unwelcome here because I am unfamiliar with the special words.

    If I am unwelcome here because I am unfamiliar with the special words, how am I ever to learn the special words?

  8. Ann Bartow says:

    This is a blog by and for feminist law professors. It is not a Feminism 101 blog. There is such a thing, and it is here:

    http://finallyfeminism101.wordpress.com/

  9. markwbennett says:

    Hm. So people who are not feminist law professors are made unwelcome here, even if they are capable of figuring out the neologisms without special tutelage?

    That’s good to know. Thanks.

  10. 2l says:

    To Prof Stein:
    I am a student at one of the more “progressive” law schools in this country, one with many professors who subscribe to this blog actually. And I can say first-hand, that although faculty may not themselves make comments as repulsive as some of those listed, not responding to comments overheard in their classrooms or in the hallways perpetuates the sexism that still exists in ALL law schools in this country.

    And to marghlar:
    Context does matter, but perhaps even where context lends itself to making a ridiculous, thoughtless, degrading comment, you should think better of it and refrain… The inherent power difference between teacher/student (especially in law school!) makes it awkward not to laugh at something the student may find personally assaulting.

    Thanks to Professor Anne Bartow for posting this. (And doubly thanks to all here for adding a much-needed feminist dimension to my legal education.)

  11. Ralph M. Stein says:

    Dear 2L,

    As a law student you understand the importance of evidence. I have no opinion about schools other than mine so I would never venture a generalization. Were you to visit here and speak to female students without any faculty present, I think you would find my comment supported. Of course there are occasional crude comments by students about students but we’ve worked very hard – and continuously – to create a welcoming and unbiased ethos and atmosphere.

    On the rare occasions when inappropriate comments were made about race, gender or sexuality in class or elsewhere there has been a immediate faculty and/or administration response.

    We’re not a band of angels here and there is bias, I’m sure. But I think we are miles beyond what is described above.

  12. 2l says:

    Professor Stein:

    I genuinely appreciate your commitment to changing the tide of legal pedagogy by creating a welcoming environment. I have visited Pace, and you have a great sense of community.

    While I admit that I do not speak for all law students, I can say that this blog illustrates the fact that most law schools still face fairly prevalent sexism. With female law professors still making significantly less than their male counterparts and pushed towards non-tenured track positions, among other issues, it’s not just saying “vagina, vagina, vagina” in a classroom that makes women feel devalued and unwelcome. (Unless of course we’re all yelling ‘vagina’ with our fists pumping in the air or something… haha?)

    Is there a law school in this country where women faculty are truly equal? To the women faculty on this blog, do you feel as if sexism has meaningfully been addressed at your school? What are the ways it creeps up short of rape jokes in class?

    Our AALS report touts a 65% female to male ratio, both for faculty and students. Yet, many of the female professors are adjunct and I know for a fact that both women and minority faculty were paid less for years until they made a stink about it.

    While I haven’t had to deal with an “unwelcoming” environment, I often feel as if I’m back in high school listening to the immature banter from my colleagues. My favorite comment: “You’re too pretty for law school.” At least they don’t snap my bra…

    2L

  13. marghlar says:

    2L: “Context does matter, but perhaps even where context lends itself to making a ridiculous, thoughtless, degrading comment, you should think better of it and refrain… The inherent power difference between teacher/student (especially in law school!) makes it awkward not to laugh at something the student may find personally assaulting.”

    I don’t disagree with that, 2L. But not all comments about sex or sexuality are “ridiculous, thougtless [or] degrading.” Including comments by law professors.

    I agree as well that profs should be conscious of the power dynamic — and as I’ve said, I’ve encountered nasty profs who abused the fact that students are somewhat compelled to laugh at jokes they may find offensive. But, as I said above, I have also encountered law profs who used sexual humor in a way that I and my classmates did not find offensive. It’s all about tone, perceived intent and atmosphere.

    I just drastically disagree with the notion that, in order to fight sexism, we have to banish all humorous reference to the sexual aspects of human existence from our lives.